Nolan Ryan triumphs after hopes faded

FORT WORTH, Texas -- Long before he became the one of the new owners of the Rangers at 12:45 Thursday morning -- way before Mark Cuban and Jim Crane, his tormentors throughout Wednesday's all-day and all-night auction, walked up to him in the hallway outside the courtroom, shook his hand and congratulated him -- Nolan Ryan had sat alone on the stairway at one end of the hall on the second floor of the federal courthouse.

This was some eight hours before team president Ryan and partner Chuck Greenberg would emerge triumphant in their pursuit of the Texas franchise as the leaders of Rangers Baseball Express. At that point, the future didn't look so bright to Ryan.

On the 17th anniversary of the day he pummeled brash pup Robin Ventura into submission with a series of head-knocking noogies, Ryan was the picture of dejection.

It was 5 p.m., give or take a few minutes, and after all these months, all that effort, all that money, Ryan could see everything falling apart, his dreams vanishing in front of his eyes.

No longer able to stomach listening to his attorneys argue among themselves, Ryan had sought solitude with a bottle of water and his inner thoughts.

They weren't pretty.

"You work so hard to build something; you can see it growing before your eyes; you bring in good people and now …" he said, letting the thought trail off, not even daring to speak it aloud.

The downward spiral had started Tuesday night when Judge Michael Lynn had allowed the rival group put together by Dallas Mavericks owner Cuban and Houston businessman Crane to ignore the court-set 8 p.m. deadline to file a qualifying offer. It would be almost 20 hours, in fact, before Ryan and Greenberg even saw the offer they would be bidding against.

The rules, Greenberg contended, kept changing.

"They're a moving target," he argued. "All we want is a level playing field."

It was that kind of day for Ryan, Greenberg and their attorneys. It seemed that every lawyer in the courtroom not sitting at their table was aligned against them. Cuban and Crane trumped Rangers Baseball Express' first modest raise of $2 million by gleefully dropping $15 million on the table and indicating they were prepared to bid in $10 million increments, not the measly $2 million bumps the auction process required.

Tension was high and the courtroom arguments were contentious. Attorneys traded expletives in the hallway during the first recess. Voices were raised in the courtroom. And Cuban just sat at his table and grinned throughout it all, daring Ryan and Greenberg to match his bids.

It was obvious they really didn't want to do that, and their attorney, Thomas Lauria, even tried to abort the auction late in the evening, protesting the process to presiding Judge Russell Nelms. Lauria requested a ruling from Lynn on his protest before proceeding, a delay that would have required a hearing Thursday morning.

Implacable and under control, Nelms calmly told Lauria that he would protect his clients' rights but would accept the next bid from Cuban and Crane.

So the auction continued, complicated and confusing much of the time because Ryan and Greenberg's bids were in today's dollars and Cuban-Crane's were discounted because of the likelihood of a delay before they could be approved by Major League Baseball and other factors.

At one point, facing a bid of $390 million from Cuban and Crane, Ryan and Greenberg countered with a $385 million cash offer that was actually worth almost $15 million more. (I mentioned that it was complicated, right?)

It was at this point that Cuban and Crane threw in the towel, surprising everyone. After conferring in their breakout room for about 10 minutes, they walked out, spotted Ryan and offered him their congratulations. When it was announced that Ryan and Greenberg had prevailed and were the new owners of the Rangers, the courtroom erupted in spontaneous cheers and a standing ovation.

"I'm happy," Ryan said, "but mostly I'm just relieved that it's finally over."

It was clearly the best of all developments for the Rangers, their fans and, whether he knows it or not, Cuban, too.

It took many years and three Super Bowl championships for Jerry Jones to outlive the stigma of being the man who ran Tom Landry out of town, and there are still those who haven't forgiven him. Cuban was running the risk of finding himself in the same position had he won the bidding and not been able to retain Ryan as team president.

Would he have even tried? Almost certainly. Cuban's no dummy. But could Ryan have survived working for him or Crane, who reportedly is a hands-on manager and might have been the one who took operating control of the Rangers while Cuban ran the Mavs? Just a guess, but it seems unlikely that the marriage could have lasted long.

With his passion for winning, Cuban might have been a great Rangers owner. Heaven knows, most of us have been begging for someone like Cuban, someone with deep pockets and a driving desire to win, to replace Tom Hicks for a long time now. What we don't know is whether Cuban would have ever come to love baseball as he so obviously does basketball.

We know how Ryan and Greenberg feel about the Rangers. They are baseball people. They love the game and they know the game, which is why having them as owners seemed practically idyllic. Clearly, they are not just in this to make money.

For Cuban and Crane, it always seemed like little more than just a good business opportunity.

And trust me, Cuban made money on this deal. He bought up a lot of the debt against the Rangers, and by driving the price up -- the total price was close to $600 million -- he assured himself a tidy profit.

In the space of about eight hours, Ryan had gone from despair, certain that his bid to become a Major League Baseball owner was doomed, to exultation.

As first Cuban, then Crane and finally their attorney, Clifton Jessup, approached Ryan and shook his hand, the look on his face changed from weary bewilderment to a stunned smile.

"Congratulations," Cuban said. "It's over."

More than 16 hours after the auction process began Wednesday morning, it ended with a handshake in an almost deserted courthouse hallway.

Ryan walked away to find Greenberg, beaming. He hadn't felt this good in … what was it? … maybe 17 years?

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.